Washington is a city of the ephemeral, the old saw goes. The ambitious come to sidle up to power, make connections, and go their own way, accruing fortunes elsewhere.
Burt Solomon knows better: “Washington is not as transient as people think it is. Washington grows by accretion,” says the genial, craggy-faced 56-year-old journalist. “These people come and stay and become part of permanent Washington.”
Solomon details “permanent Washington”—the city’s institutions of power, wealth, and prestige and how they developed over the past 100 years—in his new book, The Washington Century: Three Families and the Shaping of the Nation’s Capital.
Choosing the right families, institutions themselves, to tell the story was an early struggle; only the Boggs clan, master players of the Washington power game, was a “kind of obvious” choice, Solomon says. The other families were more difficult, he says, due mostly to the challenge of finding families prominent enough to yield secondary materials. And one standard stood above all others: “It had to be a damn good story.”
Solomon was at first inclined to choose a family from D.C.’s black elite before settling on a relative latecomer to the Washington scene: civil-rights rabble-rouser Julius Hobson Sr. As for his choice of Morris Cafritz, who turned a bowling alley into a commercial-real-estate juggernaut, reticence was an early problem; two of Cafritz’s three sons eventually agreed, but one declined to cooperate with Solomon.
The other major challenge, Solomon says, was weaving the three stories into one. The book’s chapters are broken into presidential administrations, and though some characters move between the families—former Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr., FBI director J. Edgar Hoover—most of the intersections are thematic, not actual. “Everywhere I could find a place where the families intersected, I used it,” he says. “There weren’t as many as I thought, to be honest.”
Solomon’s first book, Where They Ain’t: The Fabled Life and Untimely Death of the Original Baltimore Orioles, detailed a slice of history from his real hometown; his second book details his “adopted hometown”—Solomon, now an Arlington resident, came to Washington in 1977 and has spent most of his career at policy weekly National Journal, where he currently serves part-time as a contributing editor.
Thoughts of the book dwelled in Solomon as early as the spring of 2000, as Boggs family matriarch Corinne “Lindy” Claiborne Boggs was serving as ambassador to the Vatican; he finagled a way to turn a vacation into book research. “I said to my wife, ‘Let’s go to Rome and see if we can get in to see her,’” Solomon says. After a convivial dinner with the ambassador and a breakfast interview the following morning—and a contract with publisher William Morrow—Solomon took leave from his post at the Journal. Over the next three years, he scoured the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library’s Washingtoniana Division and the National Archives and Records Administration’s collection of land records.
Over the course of his research, Solomon developed an explanation for the partisan-tinged, money-soaked politics of today’s Washington: that political power has expanded to millions of people who never before grasped it, whether through voting reform or the Internet, displacing the white-male “old boys’ network.” (The thesis also appeared in a Washington Post Outlook piece by Solomon this month.)
But don’t expect a rash of egalitarianism in the next
Washington century; the patricians of the last—the Boggs, Cafritzes, and Hobsons—will live on, Solomon says: “You choose a brand name you know….If there’s a million choices, a name does help you go to the front of the line.”